On July 24, Pope Francis will begin a weeklong trip across Canada that he called a “pilgrimage of penance” to meet with Indigenous communities and formally apologize for the rampant abuse and “cultural genocide,” at residential schools—ran by the Roman Catholic church—where more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly enrolled.
In late March, delegates of the three largest Indigenous groups in Canada—Métis, Inuit and First Nations—met Pope Francis in the Vatican, and the pope issued the first-ever official apology from a pope to Canada’s Indigenous community. During the meeting, the pope said that he would aim to travel to Canada to begin a process of reconciliation and healing.
“Unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians, including some members of religious orders, contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation that in the past gravely damaged native populations in various ways,” Pope Francis said in a public statement in Vatican City last week.
Here’s what you need to know about the visit:
Why the pope is visiting Canada
Pope Francis’s trip comes roughly a year after the remains of more than 1,000 people’, primarily children, were discovered on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada, notably in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. The unmarked, mass burial sites sparked national outrage over Canada’s long history of abuse and death that took place at residential schools.
At the schools, children faced emotional, physical and sexual abuse from school authorities, oftentimes clergymen who worked there. Unsafe living conditions and abuse resulted in an undocumented number of deaths at the schools that went mostly unreported. Indigenous communities have long called for a papal apology taking accountability for the church’s involvement.
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, went into effect in 2007. Along with financial compensation for former students, investigations into individual physical and sexual abuse allegations, funding for health and healing programs and commemoration of the hardship the schools caused, the settlement called for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The TRC was a Canadian government commission created to examine the effects and legacy of the Indian Residential School system and to outline solutions that don’t erase the history of Indigenous suffering. The commission highlighted the church’s role in the residential school system and advocated for then pope to make a statement.
“We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada,” the TRC wrote in its Calls to Action in 2015.
The pope will visit Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit, three culturally significant locations with large Indigenous population, on his trip. In a unique diplomatic fashion, the pope won’t be meeting with Canada’s head of state, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, until halfway through the trip.
The first pope to hail from the western hemisphere, Pope Francis, born in Argentina, has been credited for being more vocal about Indigenous rights than other prominent figures in the Catholic church have.
“The fact that the church deals with this is going to be really important. On Sunday, this should be discussed in every pulpit across the country for Catholic people. The priests should be explaining what this means to the Catholic people so that they turn their actions around as individuals,” Bill Erasmus, Canadian Chair for the Arctic Athabaskan Council and former Dene National Chief, tells TIME. “That’s the only way this will have any impact and meaning.”
What to know about the Roman Catholic Church’s abuses in Indigenous schools
The residential school system, which was established by the Canadian government, was a network of boarding schools across Canada, and for years attendance was mandatory for all Indigenous children. The schools have thorough documentation of wide-scale physical, sexual and psychological abuse issues that traumatized generations of Indigenous children.
“Myself, I didn’t go to a residential school. My father had to go. He experienced it, and he didn’t want that for us,” says Erasmus. “I didn’t experience it, but I’m the next generation. It’s intergenerational, it affects all of us.”
The Catholic church operated about 70% of residential schools in Canada from the 1880s to the 1990s. Beyond a rudimentary general education, indoctrination into Christianity and Euro-Canadian customs took precedence in the schools
“If you study how Indigenous lands were invaded or colonized, there’s a pattern that involves the church,” says Erasmus. “It’s because our people already knew spirituality. They already had their own belief system and they weren’t about to argue about god when other spiritual people came amongst them, so they accepted Christianity to a large degree, but then they were lulled into what happened to them.”
The residential school curriculum was designed to eradicate all aspects of Indigneous culture, according to the University of British Columbia article. Siblings were separated from each other and Indigenous languages, customs and traditions were banned. Children also endured overcrowding, poor sanitation, insufficient food and healthcare and concerningly high death rates, the article reported. In 1907, a Canadian government inspector reported that 24% of previously healthy Indigenous children were dying in residential schools.
The schools also had coursework teaching trade skills and manual labor, but the practice was generally regarded as a method to enforce social order and to contain Indigenous people to lower-working-class jobs.
What Indigenous communities want from his visit
Indigenous Canadians across the country are grappling with what the pope’s visit could mean for them. Some feel that it’s a hollow gesture in many ways, while others look forward to it as an opportunity to find peace.
Chief Doris Bill of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation emphasizes the importance of healing that this trip offers for many survivors. The Kwanlin Dün First Nation delegation is bringing counselors and medical professionals in case the event is triggering or overwhelming for any survivors.
“I’m a survivor myself, there are about 49 of us from our First Nation that came down. It was interesting because at 4:30 this morning we had to be at the airport and everybody was excited and smiling–it was really something,” says Bill. “I think everybody has different expectations for what this trip means to them. My hope is that this helps them on their healing journey. For some, the apology means a great deal and I really hope that it helps them move forward and leave all of that negative stuff behind.”
Erasmus shares that although an apology is necessary, people may or may not be ready to accept. It remains to be seen if the Catholic church and other authorities complicit in Indigenous oppression will continue to listen to Indigenous communities and help them recover, Erasmus says.
“When it comes to the church, the government can’t be left out of this. One of the big issues here in Canada, also in the U.S., [is that] the Catholic church was paid by the government to care for our children in schools,” says Erasmus. “It’s deeply rooted, it’s systemic. It’s in the laws, it’s in the worldviews of Canada.”
Indigenous leaders and advocacy groups also continue to point out issues with the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal precedent that gave European governments and the Catholic church justification to colonize Indigenous land. In 2016, the Catholic church issued a public statement about the Doctrine of Discovery acknowledging its role in the oppression of Indigenous people, however the doctrine has never formally been renounced.
“Part of the message that the First Nations of Canada brought to the Pope when they met earlier this year is that they also have to dismiss the Doctrine of Discovery, which basically says that our people were discovered by others and because we were not Christian at contact, others had the legal obligation to occupy our lands,” says Erasmus. “Part of that is the perpetuation of the myth that we gave up our lands or that we were conquered. We were never conquered. We entered into treaties, which are peace and friendship.”
The pope’s visit to apologize for a long and devastating history of abuse against Indigenous people in Canada is the first step in his goal to make amends.
“When the council talked about this, for us it was a no-brainer. We have to support our survivors. This could be a real watershed moment for some people in helping them to move forward on their road to healing,” says Bill.